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To Die For (1995)

Directed by Gus Van Sant Novel by Joyce Maynard Screenplay by Buck Henry

  This film is loosely based on New Hampshire’s 23-year-old Pamela Smart and how she was convicted in 1991 of conspiring with four kids in her school to kill her husband. They televised the event on Court TV and it inspired Joyce Maynard to write the novel entitled, To Die For. Initially Meg Ryan was cast in the lead and several other actresses attempted to land the role after Ryan left but it was ultimately Nicole Kidman that took her place. Before I start out also letting it be known that Danny Elfman had done the music for the film, which is actually noticeable from the start since it’s very reminiscent of Beetlejuice. But it also helped it giving the movie the quirky dark humor tone it seemed to be going for.

  The movie starts out at the funeral as the credits roll in showing several newspaper clippings concerning a few of the things seen before the murder occurred. Summarizing all the events before we actually get to see them played out. For the novel/film the name was changed to Suzanne Stone who we have narrating for us as well. It’s important to keep in mind that the entire movie is told in flashbacks. It has nothing of the court in here nor the sentences that took place. Yet otherwise told in the “present;” relatives and friends also seen through the film in their respected places telling of their own stories of knowing Suzanne. Suzanne sits in front of a camera with an all white background as she begins to introduce herself, her family and late husband Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon). As she comes in and out of her memories of what had happened since meeting him, the scenes become interlaced with everyone giving their own perspective to the cameras.

  The story of them meeting being when she had gone out with some friends to a bar where Larry was bartending, noticing her right away. Despite his sister Jancie’s (Illeana Douglas) ill feeling for her brother’s new companion, he went ahead and tried to change himself for Suzanne. The last step being selling his drums of which he was passionate about but did in order to show how much she meant to him. Getting married and rapidly falling under her spell, the two jump into the “typical” family routine at her best effort. One particular dinner night; the two have an announcement to make of which the in-laws assume to be a baby on the way. Suzanne, displeased they would think such, announces rather that she had gotten a job. As the first woman to get hired at a particular news station of which the parents seem less than thrilled about. The next day Larry’s mother finds out from a worker at the local grocer that the food was prepared by someone else the previous night, thinking nothing of a little lie. A bigger one perhaps being that on their honeymoon, Suzanne sneaks away to attend a convention she had known about; where people who worked in television would be attending. Going even further as to have drinks with a sleazy executive who doesn’t as cleverly hint at what he would like her to be remembered by. Letting nothing stand in the way of her career, not even her newly stated vows.

  The fancy job she had told both parents about actually had to be begged for and even at that, was only given mindless errands to do around the place. Yet when one night calls for a replacement weather girl, Suzanne gladly accepts. After getting that taste, it was too sweet to give up. She threw herself into wanting to belong to the media, claiming people weren’t anybody unless on TV. Soon after her job at the station, she attends a high-school class to try to find students to open up and share (on tape) how they felt on matters throughout their life. Introduced to Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix), Lydia (Alison Folland) and Russel (Casey Affleck). The fact that they were the only ones to sign up for the documentary meant she could devote the majority of her time getting to know them. While things at home were not looking up, it was made clear she only used her husband as a doormat. Finally putting his foot down, Larry told her to be serious and accept that she probably wouldn’t go any farther than what she had already done. Maybe it was time to settle down and work in the restaurant his parents were giving them. Even make a family of their own. Taking time spent with him and transferring it to her new friends. Buying them things, hearing their stories and giving them advice that she thought would actually help.

  Larry goes off with his father for a trip as Suzanne has Jimmy and Lydia over for some “dancing,” later asking Lydia to walk the dog. Returning to find the two having moved to the bedroom, choosing not to say anything. Though Suzanne takes her relationship farther with Jimmy, prancing around and going off with him as her prized possession. One night while speaking to him privately, “implies” and “plants” the idea of somehow getting rid of Larry as he had only caused her pain. Using whatever words to pursue him and when not getting the immediate results expected, using her sex appeal to push Jimmy over the edge, deciding he would do it the next week.

  Which just so happened to fall on their one year anniversary. That night, Suzanne had been at work, doing the weather. Larry came home to have a drink before sitting down to watch/wait for his wife to return home. In the midst of looking for their dog he comes in contact with Jimmy and Russell who do him in, execution style. The family is informed while police and reporters begin to gather; almost conjuring Suzanne to step outside and “into the light.” After the funeral Lydia visits the house to ask Suzanne what they were going to do and state how scared her and Jimmy were. Telling her to relay the message that they would just have to forget about ever having known each other. Going to her manager about retrieving her tapes to finish the documentary and hearing of the police confiscating them. What had interested them was a tape in which she asked the class questions about sex but when the camera was reverted to Jimmy, he was caught winking into the camera. The police pick up Russel and Jimmy (whose evidence was evident) and use Lydia to tape a conversation with Suzanne. Though she doesn’t admit to anything she surely hinted at knowing something  about her husband’s death. Later taken into custody while the scene is portrayed through her eyes as though she was a celebrity, hearing only applause. Leading to the “present day” as it seem Suzanne had been recording her side of the story, speaking to the person she had made the tape for. She spoke of being fond of their secret meetings and the involvement they had with her. It turns out someone had been sent from Larry’s father (rumored he was in the mob) who takes care of their problem once and for all. They have her frozen within the ice compounded in their secret meeting. Ending with Lydia’s last words on how it would just kill Suzanne to know they were getting all the attention she always craved.

Final Thoughts: For those who don’t know anything about the case: some of the things changed were how many were involved. Also that Pamela’s husband had admitted to adultery 7 months into their marriage.  Something I didn’t find until after viewing the movie and researching the topic. But that seemed like a key component to leave out of a story with a murder/lust aspect. As well that it was a brother instead of a sister. Lastly that Pamela was the only one to receive life without parole. For the majority of the time I try to view things as much from both side as I can. After seeing how the movie depicted her it’s easy to see how they turned her into the “femme fatale” she became known for. Kidman playing the role surely didn’t help either; all irresistible and what not. Or that at the same time of him confessing was the same time she attempted her documentary and started spending more time at the high school. Lets just say for conversation sake that after she seemed genuinely upset and voiced these concerns to the teenager that he wouldn’t take it as some hint to do something about it. But it being entirely conjured up in his own mind. Just a thought.

  Other than that the movie was well made. It certainly had a “campy” type feel to it. Kidman was a great choice being captivating and hilarious, though a fan of her more bubbly roles (Practical Magic/Moulin Rouge). Though marked under Comedy the story doesn’t exactly play out as such. At the end when the Hit man calls Larry’s father to confirm what had happened, they do this, asinine close up of Dan Hedaya and Maria Tucci’s (the parents) face that made it a bit too silly for my taste (at least for an ending). The kids involved were given a beatnik feel to their character of which Phoenix was great at. Can’t play awkward any better than he can. What was good for 1993 may not hold up for 2012 though. I didn’t feel like anything was too great per say to boast about but an otherwise okay film that helped some of the actors involved with their stepping-stones. A couple FF’s (fun facts) being that Affleck went on to marry Summer Phoenix, Joaquin’s sister. Another that after working with the Director on this project, Casey handed him a script from his brother Ben that eventually became Good Will Hunting.